Thursday, November 20, 2008

Leadership lessons from Kumble

Leadership lessons from Kumble

V. K. Madhav Mohan in business line

For nearly two decades a billion despairing Indians found a role model who inspired them to aspire for greatness. That inspiration came not from sovereign sources but from Anil Kumble and his magnificent performances on the cricket field. The fact that his personality and character were so highly evolved ensured that his stature transcended the boundaries of the cricket arena and entered the collective consciousness of the nation at large. His recent retirement from cricket is an occasion for us to asses his non-cricketing legacy. CEO's and business owners can learn so many facets of leadership from Jumbo's career.

Personal courage

Kumble bowling in the West Indies with his head bandaged after a broken jaw is arguably one of the most stirring images in modern Indian history. That is like a wounded soldier going into battle with no care for his own personal safety or welfare. Our gallant sons and daughters in uniform brave enemies of all hues every day and are ready to lay down their lives in line of duty.

Kumble was no less on the cricket field; each time he donned the Indian uniform he was prepared to lay down his life for the country. That was so much in evidence even in his last Test match in Delhi (Oct 29-Nov 2, 2008) when he bowled, fielded and took a difficult catch with 11 stitches in his left hand. Can you imagine the pain he had to fight?

Raw courage, of the moral and physical variety, is a basic ingredient of leadership. CEO's will do well to develop it through observation, internalisation, and expanding the field of personal experiences. Courage is particularly necessary during the difficult times that are now unfolding.

CEOs are going to be tested like never before in this department. Will they demonstrate the courage to do the right things, namely, putting the welfare of the organisation above personal considerations? Those who have only fed personal greed thus far are unlikely to lead their companies out of these troubled times!

Results Over Rhetoric

Kumble was dignity personified in his conduct on and off the field. Never was his integrity or sportsman's spirit doubted, let alone questioned. He simply went about his work of taking wickets. His deadly repertoire of top spinners, googlies and leg breaks did all the talking. He was quiet, intense and the very embodiment of steely determination. No wonder he was dreaded as the silent, smiling assassin.

He didn't shoot his mouth off; he just shot out batsmen. He didn't bother much about over-rated concepts like body language or mind games with opponents. Instead, he painstakingly built up his stamina and mental strength to deliver ball after ball with spit and venom, for hours on end.

The focus and determination to get wickets is scary! So much so that everything else is shut out. No distractions, no diversions; just a single-minded pursuit of the result desired. As Geet Sethi said recently, (at Custommerce, Thiruvananthapuram, on October 17, 2008) excellence is the result of a "mad obsession" to do well and to do better; mere passion won't do!

In the end, the bottom line was the result that Kumble delivered: 619 test wickets. No rhetoric can ever match that result!


Kumble's performance and results are like the proverbial tip of the vast submerged mass of the iceberg. His 619 test wickets and nearly two decades of playing for India conceal the mind-boggling preparation that went into it. In 132 test matches he bowled 40,770 balls to take 619 wickets ( That means he took a wicket every 65.86 balls. Just imagine the effort needed to bowl that many balls in a match situation.

Every sportsman knows that match situations are so tough and draining that you have to train that much harder during practice. To operate at peak levels in match situations Kumble would have had to bowl maybe a 100 times that many balls in practice: a staggering 40,77,000 balls in the nets. Assuming that 15 overs are bowled in the nets every hour (that is, 90 balls every hour) the total number of balls bowled in practice translates into 45,300 hours bowling in the nets!

That means an average of 6.2 hours bowling at the nets every single day for 20 years, not counting the fitness routines, fielding practice and batting practice, pulled muscles, cramps, sore shoulders, broken fingers, shattered jaw, bruises, callouses, blisters and all kinds of other pain, sweat and blood. And don't forget the number of balls that Kumble has bowled in one-dayers, first class matches, other matches, the constant travel and stress.

This is the kind of preparation that it takes to succeed on this scale for so long. Not many people can appreciate the amount of preparation that Anil Kumble has put in to get where he is. Quite simply, while other players were out partying, modelling and holding press conferences, Kumble was toiling at the nets!

Truly great

Anil Kumble has passed into the pantheon of truly great Indians. We were fortunate to have watched and vicariously shared in his heroic deeds. All of us became better Indians, at least for a short while, when Jumbo was in full flow.

India's test match resurgence began with his captaincy last year. The tour of Australia demonstrated the impact of inspiring leadership. The team bonded and produced results that made the country proud. Kumble's imprimatur will remain forever in the nation's psyche. That is an impact the politicians can only dream of leaving.

(Illustration by R. Rajesh)

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